From Carolingian to Romanesque Art







The fresco decorates the royal chapel of the ancient Spanish kingdom of Asturias, which was absorbed by the kings of Castile in f 230. The roof of the three-naved chapel (previously the narthex of the older church) has six elaborate cross vaults. The decoration covers the six bays and lunettes and also the south and east walls, developing the narrative in a spiral, from the Annunciation in the southeast corner to Christ Pantocrator on the ancient main door. The dating has recently been established by a new interpretation of the figures at the foot of the cross. One of the most expressive parts of the entire cycle, the Annunciation, shows a peaceful scene with shepherds and domestic animals. The announcing angel points to the incomplete Nativity fresco in the east lunette, Mary and Joseph, a donkey and ox, and in the background a portal with a column in the middle and decorated with drapes.

Fresco on the vault of the Pantheon of the Kings,
Mid-12th century.
Church of San Isidoro, Leon, Spain.




Apart from the cathedral of St James at Compostela, the final destination for the pilgrims, the most impressive churches on the road to Santiago de Compostela were those of Saint Sernin of Toulouse and Sainte Madeleine of Vézelay. In these places of worship, pilgrims could wander freely through the broad naves, transepts, apsidal ambulatories, and upper galleries, pray at the altars, admire the lofty columns and soaring vaults, and study the extraordinary figures carved on the portals and capitals. The figurative sculpture of the 11 th and 12th centuries was powerfully iconographie, reflecting the more outward nature of Christian worship, which was no longer restricted to closed monastic communities. The Mystic Wine Press carved on one of the capitals at Vézelay, the signs of the zodiac at Toulouse, the huge, angular pillars bearing reliefs of the apostles St Paul and St Jeremiah at Moissac, and many other examples of imagination and creativity on the part of religious architects and artists were designed to extol the providential cosmic order of the world created by God and redeemed by Christ.

Capital of the Mystic Wine Press,
Sainte Madeleine, Vezelay, France, 12th century


Master Mateo,
portal of the Portico da Gloria,
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Spain,

Ciborium with stuccowork depicting Christ and Saints Peter and Paul,
Sant'Ambrogio, Milan,
mid-12th century

Romanesque Art

The teachings of Cluny, already well established by the year 1000, then spread to southwest Europe. They prompted the concepts of pilgrimage and monasticism throughout medieval society, which in itself placed a great deal of emphasis on human destiny and communal life. The Benedictine abbey of Cluny, which was exclusively dependent on the pope and so immune to the excessive power of feudal lords, was rebuilt twice in the course of a century, thanks to the initiative of the abbots Odilo and Hugh. The order continued to flourish, and the artistic achievements it encouraged were enthusiastically recorded by the Cluniac monk Rudolf. He wrote, "In all the world, but particularly in Gaul and Italy, churches were built and enlarged as if the world, discarding its old look, was dressing itself in white church vestments." The Cluniac order controlled the main monastic foundations on the pilgrimage routes to Rome and Santiago de Compostela, the latter particularly notable for ancient churches that had been renovated and enlarged. Many of these buildings were extensions on the basic basilica plan but with much more emphasis placed on the use of interior space. Church design was based on the symbolic shapes of the square and the circle. Walls were made of square stone slabs (lapides quadri), and columns were gradually replaced by pilasters that could support a system of vaulted roofs. The image of the Transfiguration, placed intentionally on the portal of Santiago, seemed to animate this desire to transform material into spatial arrangements that were both functional and symbolic. The development of Romanesque architecture was closely linked with the buildings' natural surroundings. This is best demonstrated by the abbey of Mont-St-Michel in Normandy, which is suspended between land and sea; the basilica of Sainte-Foy of Conques, set on a steep slope in the Auvergne; and the church of San Pietro al Monte, which sits on the summit of a foothill in Civate in the Italian Alps.
Equally significant in the development of Romanesque style was the role of monumental sculpture. Historical and religious scenes were created in the form of reliefs on capitals and doors, one of the best examples of which can be found in the cloisters at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. Here, intricately sculpted capitals depict events from the Bible and the lives of the saints, reflecting the increase in learning that was taking place at the time. In terms of painting, unfortunately very little has survived from this period, even though they once covered countless church walls. While much of the most impressive Romanesque architecture is to be found in France, the artistic styles in Italy were extremely diverse: the splendid Lombardic architecture was exemplified in Sant'Ambrogio in Milan, San Michele in Pavia, and in the cathedrals of Piacenza. Parma, and Modena, all situated on the pilgrimage route to Rome.
Decorative Romanesque sculpture flourished from the Lombardy region to Emilia-Romagna, and examples ranged from the capitals of Sant'Ambrogio to the facade of San Michèle. The style reached its peak during the early 12th century7 in the work of the sculptor Wiligelmo of Modena, whose great figures carved for the reliefs in Modena cathedral combined classical simplicity with dramatic force. The movements based on the journeys of pilgrims and the Cluniac monasteries created a cultural network that linked distant areas and resulted in notable achievements in painting. Over the same period, often for political reasons, styles became increasingly diversified. In countries such as Germany and Italy, for example, the Byzantine influence persisted well beyond the 12th century, whereas in France and Italy there was a much quicker progression towards the Gothic. The impact of Greek culture was felt in Venice and Rome by the 11th century and reached Sicily the following century. Art historians and critics continue to debate the direction of these exchanges and. consequently, the extent of reciprocal influences. The near-illusionist quality of Byzantine painting needed to contend with other traditional elements from elsewhere in Europe. In some cases, the exchange of these was trouble-free, while in others it was more difficult. This can be seen, for example, in the clashes with the compositional stiffness and strong graphic emphasis of Germanic culture in the church of Lambach. Western culture exhibited a much wider, more complex range of iconography in the marriage of its narrative style and symbolism.

Lunette with Crucifixion and Saints, Notre-Dame, Le Puy, France, 11tn century.
This cathedral in the Auvergne, built between the 11th and 12th centuries,
is one of the most important monuments in French Romanesque art

This was particularly true in Rome, where, partly due to the great reforming zeal of Pope Gregory VII, Romanesque pictorial art was gloriously represented, for example, in the cycle of San Clemente and the triptych of Tivoli cathedral, with its typically graphic treatment of drapery. The frescos in the chapel of Berze-la-Ville, just outside Cluny, also reflect the courtly compromise between Byzantium and Rome. Cluniac illuminated miniature art was still based on Germanic models, as in the Cluny Lectionary, though a second wave of Byzantine culture soon appeared to stimulate masterpieces such as the Souvigny Bible and the Transfiguration in the cathedral of Le Puy. The most pronounced opposition to Byzantine influence, however, was to be found in the British Isles, Spain, and Aquitaine (the ancient province of southwest France). In the Lambeth Palace Bible, for example, traditional linear decoration totally overwhelmed the formal harmony of the Italian-Greek motifs that were displayed in the St Albans Psalter.

Wiligelmo, Stories from Genesis, Cathedral facade, Modena, Italy,
c. 1099-1106.
Shown here are God the Father,
the creation of Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent

Cross of the Archbishop Gero, Cologne Cathedral, Germany, pre-AD976



Considered to be the great Ottonian churches, St Michael at Hildesheim, St Pantaleon in Cologne, St Bartholomew in Paderbom, Sainte Gertrude in Nivelle, and the collegiate church of Essen collectively broadened the scope of church design. The Carolingian style of juxtaposition was transformed into new schemes and layouts that created a unified monumental structure. Lateral naves, double transepts, crypts, and galleries all provided the necessary scenario for the richness and complexity of liturgical ceremony. This was accentuated by the extraordinary variety of religious furnishings: most notably crucifixes such as those of Gero in Cologne and Otto in Essen; ante-pendiums (altar frontals). such as the ivory example thought to have once been in the Magdeburg Abbey of Hildesheim and one of Henry II in Basel: and reliquaries, including the masterpiece of miniature architecture commissioned by the abbess Theophanu.

Interior of St Michael's,Hildesheim, Germany.
Originaly dating from c.1186




A special characteristic of Modena cathedral, unusual for the Romanesque period, is that the names of its first architect, Lanfranc, and its even more important sculptor, Wiligelmo, are known. Their work testifies to the professional competition that must have existed between architects and sculptors. The reliefs on the facade narrate episodes from Genesis, which were the subject of the earliest sacred drama performances. Wiligelmo successfully combined expressive vitality and extraordinary plastic-strength, embracing both the realism and classicism of Byzantine icons as well as the calligraphic tendency evident in French sculpture. While Wiligelmo's carvings can be dated from the early 12th century, the Deposition in Parma Cathedral was signed and dated by Benedetto Antelami in1178. One of the great masters of engraving and mural painting. Antelami made important contributions to Romanesque art. While he seemed to be most responsive to the rhythms of Provencal plastic art, in other respects he displayed the vast energy that is so characteristic of artists from Emilia and Lombardy. Towards the end of the f 2th century. Antelami undertook the sculptural decoration at Parma cathedral, where his Months communicates the dignity of human labour through the passing of the seasons. The great iconic reliefs of the portals reflect the cultural depth and richness that medieval thought had attained.

Benedetto Antelami, Deposition, Parma Cathedral, Italy,




The maturity of French Romanesque painting in the mid-1 lth century can be seen in the frescos of Le Puy Cathedral. These are dominated by the figure of the archangel Michael, the iconography of which reveals the Byzantine influences that were active in southern France, especially around Cluny. The opening years of the 12th century saw an enrichment of the pictorial and ornamental repertory, as exemplified by the huge decorative landscape in the Benedictine church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe (Poitou), with its astonishing colour contrasts and iconographie variety. Further north, a feel for calligraphy was more common, with luminous and graceful compositions that reflected the religious serenity. The fresco figures in the chapel of St Gilles Priory at Montoire-sur-le-Loire and the portal reliefs of Souillac both dance and vibrate with soft light and colour.

Stories of Saint Theophilus,
Abbey church, Souillac, France,
late 12th century


Fresco of St Michael, Notre-Dame, Le Puy France, 11th century

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